FASS Chats | Christmas

FASS Chats are a light-hearted look at the world through the eyes of OU Arts and Social Science academics. With no script, experts from wide-ranging fields of study and research chat about a topic, bringing their different perspectives to the discussion.

Paul Francois Tremlett took part in the latest FASS Chat, to talk about Christmas with Lynda Prescott and Jonquil Lowe. Our seasonal traditions might be more recent, complex and darker than you realised!

The Rag-Tree

By Kate Smith, University of Hull

The water we meet in the landscape carves out many meanings: it is sustenance, beauty, leisure, boundary, edge, life, death, rebirth. In my own landscape, it is a thing of contradictions. In my landscape there is only one river, yet we are surrounded by water; the valleys are dry, yet green and abundant; stubborn, marshy carr is locked in perpetual battle with just as stubborn, drain-building men; great chunks of old land fall away and new land emerges from the silt. It is a place where the difficulty of watering cattle and crops is given painful counterpoint by the frequency of flooding. All of this, these meanings, battles and paradoxes are ruled by the complex relationship between rocks, soil, water and people.

The meaning I am most drawn to, that resonates the most as the seasons around me change and the soil hardens with frost, is ‘rebirth’.

I spent a painful decade after getting my PhD, wandering around looking for something else to do: my doctoral research was intimately linked to the landscapes of my childhood, but after seven years of research, a major relocation and two babies, that connection had been lost. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the landscapes of my imagination fed my research until I was in a landscape with which I had no connection at all. My folklorist-research brain hibernated: I tried and tried to find a way to engage with the hills and plains that I was now living in but the spark would not reignite. And so I carried on with the rest of life, busy with small people and all that they demand. I almost forgot that once I had imagined, created and thought so intensely that it felt as though my head was full of dancing fireflies.

And then one day, a New Year’s day, we went for a walk. Just a couple of hours, but I wanted to go somewhere away from our usual paths so we headed off a few miles away to explore a circular route which included a bit of the old railway that once connected York and Beverley. And there, alongside the trackbed, looking somewhat out of place among the wintry trees and dark mud was a large, heavily decorated Rag Tree.

My folklorist-researcher brain woke up.

Next to the tree was a noticeboard, explaining the history of the site. Behind the noticeboard, off to the right were a series of steps and terraces, and a large, coffin-shaped tank into which flowed the clear, bright water of St Helen’s Well.

My folklorist-researcher brain *really* woke up.

Although it was cold, and although my dear, patient husband was somewhat bemused by my sudden excitement, we stayed by that well and its rag tree for nearly an hour as I wandered about, trying to photograph everything, trying to count and categorise all the rags in the tree, trying to photograph all the panels in the noticeboard, trying to swallow all of the context in one giant gulp.

I had found my way in. I had found meaning in a landscape that had, until now, been alien and disinterested.

My work in this place had to be about the water. This landscape is all about the water, and the way that people live with it. The folklorist-researcher brain that had slept and slept for so long finally had something to stay awake for. That walk was the start of an exploration that continues: I now have a visiting research position within the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, working alongside geographers and geologists who are concerned with the physical effects of water and flooding. They know an awful lot about how water has affected the physical landscape of this area, but they know very little about how water has affected the emotional, cultural, and spiritual landscape of this area.

I think now that perhaps the prolonged hibernation of my thinking brain was a way of coping with the mundane relentlessness that parenting brings us. Getting back into academic work hasn’t been without its challenges, and I’m at the very start of my formal research into water in this landscape. But I have already learnt this much: it is never too late to have another go, and that sometimes a period of intellectual stillness can be a good thing. And I am grateful that my thinking, imagining, creating brain was reborn by an encounter with water in my landscape.

New Publication | Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion

Lecturer in Religious Studies, David G. Robertson, is one of the editors of the just-published Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, along with Asbjørn Dyrendal (NTNU, Norway) and Egil Asprem (Stockholm University).

Conspiracy theories are a ubiquitous feature of our times. The Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion is the first reference work to offer a comprehensive, transnational overview of this phenomenon along with in-depth discussions of how conspiracy theories relate to religion(s). Bringing together experts from a wide range of disciplines, from psychology and philosophy to political science and the history of religions, the book sets the standard for the interdisciplinary study of religion and conspiracy theories.

As well as David’s contributions, the book also includes a chapter co-written by Lecturer Suzanne Newcombe, entitled “Trust Me, You Can’t Trust Them”: Stigmatised Knowledge in Cults and Conspiracies.” Other chapters include methodological overviews from sociology, psychology and philosophy; regional case studies on Sri Lanka, Albania, Greece, Japan and elsewhere; thematic chapters on popular music, Esotericism, Church of the SubGenius, neo-Nazism, the Internet; and more.

Remembrance Sunday | British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914

In case you missed it the first time, here’s Philip Williamson (Durham University) talking about Remembrance Day: the British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914, one of the keynote presentations from our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference, recorded Feb 21st 2018.

Most historical work on commemoration emphasises the civil creations from 1919 onwards: Armistice day, the two-minutes silence, the Cenotaph, the War Graves Commission and war memorials, and the British Legion.  Aside from the burial of the Unknown Warrior, the churches are treated almost as adjuncts. Yet British church leaders had been involved with remembrance since 1914, and from 1919 they created their own religious commemoration of Remembrance day, which in 1946 replaced Armistice day as the official occasion for national commemoration.  Against the supposed trends towards secularisation, the churches acquired and retain a leading part in remembrance of the war dead. Yet some tension always existed between the civil and religious commemorations, and what secured the place of the churches in national rituals also brought compromises. This paper will consider how the protestant churches created a new religious commemoration of the war dead; how remembrance contributed to co-operation between leaders of the various British churches; how the character of Remembrance has changed; and how in national commemoration the churches and the state arrived at an alliance of church religion and civil religion.

Photo by James Harris on Unsplash

Little Makeshift Shrines to Dead People

By David G. Robertson

Were there always little makeshift shrines to dead people around the city?

I ask in all seriousness. I grew up in Inverness but ended up in Leith about fifteen years ago, and since then I have been fascinated by the makeshift memorials that I began to see popping up every few months. Like roadside shrines.

Usually they are for young who have died in unfortunate circumstances: a young man who was attacked late at night around New Year; where a child was hit by a car; where a heroin addict died after a fight outside Boots as they waited for their methadone prescription. There’s an unusual one on a cycle path rather than a pavement, but I’m not sure about the details there. It is interesting to note the similarities among the features, however: football colours are typical, as well as other hobbies, like music; flowers are always present, and candles. So while there is (usually) no explicitly religious content, there are recognizable funerary symbols.

Leith’s an interesting part of Edinburgh. For a long time it was very rundown, and when I moved to Edinburgh in the 1990s (around the time Trainspotting was released) it was still known as “The Heroin Capital of Europe”; now it has three different Michelin Starred restaurants and one of Britain’s top tourist attractions. So unlike, say, Morningside or Stockbridge, it’s not very middle-class – more a few rich people and then a BIG gap before you get down to folk like me. But Leith also has a Catholic heritage, even if most people don’t realise why Hibs fans are referred to as “Huns”. So maybe these kinds of spontaneous shrines were always something that happened in Leith, and I didn’t see them before because I was in Calvinist Inverness. I wonder, then, if they are common in Glasgow? [Update: Marion Bowman just shared a photo of one for a Big Issue seller in Bath).

Or maybe they’re a recent phenomenon. Our Instagram feed has included several photos of padlocks appearing on fences in popular tourist spots, and in the last few years the practice of rubbing the toe of the statue of John Knox on the Royal Mile has gone from something specific to philosophy graduates to all tourists, and has now spread to Greyfriar’s Bobby’s nose, 100 yards along George IV Bridge. These rituals are certainly changing over a relatively short period of time, although a serious dive into the broader sociological reasons why would require more space than a blog post would allow. But it is certainly interesting to speculate on these shrines being members of the public reclaiming what had traditionally been a function of religious institutions in a post-Christian Scotland.

Instead, I want to end on a point about how we read data for change. To assume that such change was a new phenomenon would be an error, if I didn’t have data from the period before. Just as it would be wrong to assume that sexual fetishes only began with the Kinsey Report, to assume that popular religious practices only started when scholars started to record them may be making the tail wag the dog. As I argued in a previous post, to assume that social behaviours are static and unchanging until the scholar casts their gaze upon it is rather colonial in itself, as though everything “primitive” (be that the colonies or the proles) never changed until it was forced on them. We see this much change and innovation in a few square miles over ten years – what would a history of any of the supposedly monolithic “World Religions” look like with this level of detail? How well would any of the claims to continuity, consistency and tradition hold up?

The  Black Majority Churches and ecumenism


On 30 October as part of Black History Month the department is contributing to ‘The Black Majority Churches and Ecumenism’ [pdf flier here] – a public event at the New Testament Church of God Learning and Training Centre in Northampton. The event is hosted and chaired by the Revd. Phyllis Thompson of the NTCG. In the Q and A with Dr John Maiden below, Revd. Thompson discusses the history of relations between the historic mainline churches and the BMCs in Britain, and says more about this event.

How would you describe the interactions between local black majority churches and mainline congregations in Britain in the 1970s and before?

The interactions were tentative and fraught in the main due to ignorance, scepticism, disappointment, frustration, racism and rejection to mention a few of the reported experiences.  Some of the men and women who came to the UK during this time, came as migrants and missionaries. Oliver Lyseight, for example, founding admin Bishop of the New Testament Church of God and listed 3rd of 100 Black British Achievers, belongs to a denomination which is part of a global Pentecostal movement currently with over 8 million members in over 34,000 local congregations in more than 184 countries around the world (www.churchofgod.org). Determined to sustain his faith in the midst of the dissatisfaction and discontent, Oliver Lyseight – like many others – established branch congregations of their Pentecostal denominations in the UK. Given the sociopolitical issues mentioned earlier, the so called ‘black majority churches’ emerged and with this history the critical need for meaningful and sincere dialogue to address the fears, prejudice, and injustice of racial discrimination and identify ways in which the ‘historic churches and the so called ‘black majority churches’ could dialogue and find a voice to bring healing amongst its constituency, and together present the Christian message to the wider community.

You were involved in a project called Zebra in North East London from the late 1970s. What was Zebra and what was its approach to developing local relationships between BMCs and mainlines?

The Zebra project, as Deryck Collingwood, Chairman of the London N. E. District of the Methodist Church, said at the time, ‘was born out of disappointment.’ Ira Brooks, a leading New Testament Church of God Minister speaking on behalf of the Zebra Project, said ‘I have watched the painful success of Zebra from inside – having worked as a member of its steering committee for some years… people from various walks of life and professions are becoming more and more aware of it as a resource of information and expertise, especially within the delicate and difficult matters of racial harmony that are available for the use of blending and strengthening Britain’s multi-faith/cultural society for the 21st century.’ Insightful dialogue with the aim to encourage and support people of different backgrounds to work together to bring about racial justice was central to the  Zebra Project.

The public event on 30 October will explore some of this ecumenical history, and you will be chairing a discussion. How is this history, and the issues it raises, relevant to the churches in Britain today?

Clearly there is much to celebrate about the relationship between the ‘black majority churches’ and the ‘historic churches’ – this is evidenced, for example, by the  make-up of the leadership and work of Churches Together in England.

However, there is still a great deal to be done. An understanding of and engagement with the historical context  of the UK Churches should be a must for all church leaders who are keen to build on the wisdom of hindsight.

What do you think has been the impact of black majority churches on Christianity in Britain since Windrush?

The black majority Churches have made and continue to make significant contribution to the British religious landscape and the Christian witness in particular. Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir’s performance at the Royal wedding on the world’s stage is a good example, as are the many other Pentecostal Christians of African/Caribbean background who are making tremendous contribution via the so called seven spheres of influence as itemised by Loren Cunningham: Family, religion/church, Education, Government, Media, Celebration (Arts, Entertainment and Sports) and Economics(Business, Science, and technology).

The event costs £5, including lunch and refreshments. To book, email education@ntcg.org.uk

3 Minute Theories | Imagined Communities, with Stefanie Sinclair

We’re back! In bang-on three minutes, Stefanie Sinclair tells us about Benedict Anderson’s theory of Imagined Communities, in which groups gather around ideas and identities even when separated geographically. Originally coined for nationalism studies, the concept has great significance for other fields, including Religious Studies.

What Imagined COmmunities are you part of? Let us know in the comments!

Public Talk | The Black Majority Churches and Ecumenicism

John Maiden will be speaking at a public event on October 30th in Northampton, to recognise Black History Month, hosted by the New Testament Church of God, supported by the Religious Studies department at the Open University and the Religious Archives Group.

The event will explore historical and contemporary perspectives on the Black Majority Churches in the UK and ecumenism, including a historical talk by John Maiden entitled ‘“Partnership not paternalism”: the Black Majority Churches and Ecumenism’. This will be followed by a time for reflection and discussion chaired by the Revd. Phyllis Thompson (New Testament Church of God). There will also be an opportunity to visit the NTCG Heritage Centre.

The event costs £5, including lunch and refreshments. To book, or for more details, please contact Mrs Edris Buchanan-Edwards at Education@ntcg.org.uk by 19 October.

Friedrich A. Hayek, Max Weber and the Anthropocene

By Paul-François Tremlett

In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.

The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.

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